Tuesday, November 18, 2008

When Is a Win Not a Win?

In People v Backus (2008 NY Slip Op 08772 [4th Dept 11/14/2008)] the defendant won on his claim that the consecutive sentence imposed was illegal. However, a panel of the Fourth Department divided 3-2 as to the appropriate remedy, with the majority holding that on remitter of the matter to County Court to resentence defendant the court should "entertain a motion by the People, should the People be so disposed, to vacate the plea and set aside the conviction in its entirety." Not so good for Mr. Backus.

Specifically, Backus appealed from a judgment convicting him, upon his plea of guilty, of two counts of vehicular assault in the second degree (Penal Law § 120.03 [1]) and one count of driving while intoxicated (Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1192 [3]), and sentencing him to two one-year concurrent definite terms for vehicular assault, and a one-year definite term for driving while intoxicated, to be served consecutively. Since the offense of driving while intoxicated is a material element of the offense of vehicular assault in the second degree and thus the sentence was illegal insofar as County Court imposed consecutive sentences. As set forth below the two dissenting Justices would have corrected the illegality by ordering the sentences to run concurrently:

As noted by the majority, the sentence in this case was imposed pursuant to a plea agreement, but we have in the past modified a judgment on the ground that the bargained-for sentence was illegal because consecutive sentences were not permissible and have directed that the sentences run concurrently (see People v Taylor, 197 AD2d 858). There is no sentence that the court could impose here that would result in the bargained-for sentence, i.e., two one-year definite terms of imprisonment. Defendant has already served a one-year definite term and, "when the court has imposed a sentence of imprisonment and such sentence is in accordance with law, such sentence may not be changed, suspended or interrupted once the term or period of the sentence has commenced" (CPL 430.10). Although it is implicit in CPL 430.10 that a court has the power to correct an illegal sentence even if the defendant has begun serving it, a court may not alter a sentence that "is in accordance with law" once it is being served (id.; see People v Carpenter, 19 AD3d 730, 732, lv denied 5 NY3d 804). In our view, the illegality of the sentence was in directing the one-year definite sentence for driving while intoxicated to run consecutively to the one-year concurrent definite sentences for vehicular assault (see People v Davis, 12 AD3d 237, 238). That defect is corrected by directing that the sentences run concurrently (see id.).